Fresh abuses show: it’s time to shut down youth prisons

More horrific abuses have been exposed through the Royal Commission examining juvenile detention and “child protection” in the Northern Territory.

But there are clear signs that the $150 million inquiry, called in the wake of revelations of torture of Aboriginal children in Darwin’s Don Dale detention centre, will do little to stop the abuse at the heart of the system.

In March, a former child detainee spoke about attempting suicide six times in five days during an extended period in solitary confinement, saying “dying was better than staying in isolation”.

Male guards cut her clothes off with a knife and left her naked. She was made to wear handcuffs on the way to hospital despite having bleeding hands. She was put straight back into solitary for 34 hours after the final suicide attempt.

In April, the Commission heard that Conan Zamolo, a body builder and trained fighter, had uploaded videos on the internet of child detainees being forced to eat bird faeces. In another filmed incident he asked a group of boys to “suck my dick”. He also filmed a boy urinating while saying, “what are you doing you little gay dog?” Zamolo claimed this was evidence of his “good rapport” with the boys.

Another guard, Derek Tasker, denied ever grabbing children by the neck, despite allegations from multiple children. His lie came unstuck when CCTV footage was shown of him grabbing former detainee Dylan Voller in a particularly brutal incident.

Photographs of Voller hooded and shackled to a chair helped trigger the Royal Commission. Since being released from prison in January, he has courageously led protests for justice outside Commission hearings in Alice Springs alongside the campaign group Shut Youth Prisons Mparntwe.

Dylan’s sister Kirra Voller also condemned the fact that Derek Tasker has actually been promoted, and is now in charge of training other guards at the Alice Springs youth detention centre:

“Why is there a Royal Commission if Tasker and Clee (another guard who abused Dylan) are still working in these positions? Sacking them should be the first step.”

Racism as usual

An interim report from the Commissioners released in April avoided making any recommendations. But it demonstrated they are only interested in pushing for cosmetic changes, such as better training of guards or better “structural design” of detention facilities. The report concluded, “every child in out-of-home care or in detention must be given a real opportunity to reach their full potential.”

But children should not be in prison at all, locking them up is itself an act of abuse. And the mass removal of Aboriginal kids from their parents by “child protection” into non Indigenous foster care needs to end immediately. As Aboriginal leaders have made clear, local people are more than capable of looking after children from troubled families if they are given the power and resources.

The Commissioners’ report was silent on the systemic racism that underlies the brutal treatment of Aboriginal children. In particular, they ignored the continuing impact of the NT Intervention, now rebranded Stronger Futures, which began in 2007, supposedly to “save the children”. This legislation treats Aboriginal people as second class citizens, with extreme police powers and racist controls over land and income. It has led to an explosion in rates of incarceration, child removal, suicide and other social problems.

NT Labor were elected to government in August last year, promising fundamental change in the wake of the Don Dale scandal. But they have proved just as willing to use racist rhetoric around Aboriginal youth crime as the Liberals. In February Chief Minister Michael Gunner defended police who tasered a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy in the back as he ran away, rejecting calls by National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell to prohibit the use of tasers on children. And Labor have done nothing to release children from either prison or foster care or sack staff responsible for torture.

In their report, the Commissioners welcomed much needed funding delivered by Labor for “diversion” programs for youth offenders. However, Labor has also beefed up funding for police “to deal with youth crime” and passed laws allowing electronic ankle bracelets to be used on children.

NT government lawyers fought Dylan Voller’s bail application and pursued other victims of torture for court costs, following a civil case seeking compensation. In late April, during a Commission hearing, the NT Solicitor-General disgracefully grilled Dylan Voller hours on his history, including on suicide attempts and incidents in primary school. She consistently accused him of lying.

There will be no justice from this process. The NT protests outside the Commission need to grow. On “Sorry Day”, May 26, Voller’s family will also travel to Sydney to lead a rally calling for the closure of youth prisons and Aboriginal control of Aboriginal child welfare.

By Paddy Gibson


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